From the age of about 14-18, I wanted to be a nun. Yes, a reverend sister totally devoted mind body and spirit to God. I know it sounds crazy but allow me to transport you back to that era of my existence and fill in the answers to the many questions I have been asked about this. The first question is the obvious one: why on earth would you want to be a nun? While everyone else around me was baffled as to the why, I was very sure of why I was headed to the convent.
Firstly, I was scared of men. There! I said it! I was terrified of men, who, I had come to learn, were in possession of a missile-like body part that was deadly dangerous. I had done my intelligence and drawn my conclusions. Men were to be feared for this missile they possessed, because its dangers were manifold. I have always had a vivid and somewhat strange imagination and I had conjured up images of all the potential perils associated with the missile. Please excuse me if I seem reductionist in my view of men. This is not so now. However when I was 14, yes, men were reduced, like mixed fractions, to their simplest terms: the missile, the all powerful, invasive missile…
Firstly, I imagined the missile with the capability to blow my future to smithereens, obliterating goals and shattering dreams, leaving me sitting in a wasteland of unfulfilled potential, piles of ambition strewn all around me like rubble after the blitzkrieg, with a baby sucking at my breast like a parasitic tick on a vagrant dog. My cold cloak of eternal shame would be swathed round me. And the parasite tugging at my nipple.
The missile could blast me into space and land me softly on fluffy cloud 9. I would be stranded there but if I happened to get off, I would land on terra firma with an unceremonious thud. I would forever be an addict, a slave to the missile launches, which would have me wondering desperately from man to man in search of bigger more explosive missiles to launch me to cloud number 9 with greater velocity and precision! Like a crack hoe I would grovel and beg for a launch and scratch my itchy body as I sweated through withdrawal symptoms, unable to think straight until I got my fix.
The missile could torpedo me into a one way tunnel through the various layers of the earth’ crust to molten magna –hot hell. There, I would be forever damned to broil while the devil cackled at my eternal demise and speared me to turn me over with his pitchfork. All thanks to the missile, this potent, self propelled projectile weapon of woman’s destruction!
Allow me if you will, to place these childish nightmares into a cultural and social context.
Growing up I had seen cousins and aunties and neighbors who had become victims of the missile and it was quite traumatic. The closer these women were to me, the more traumatic it was because forever I would hear: “You see what happens to loose girls? See what befalls girls with no morals? If you ever, ever do such a thing, you will not live to tell the tale!” I recall incidences where an unplanned teenage pregnancy resulted in a girl having to stop going to school. The boys never suffered such a life changing fate. It seems that the consequences of missile exploration were felt solely by the girls. And yet in most case there were two complicit parties, boy and girl, or one aggressor and a victim, usually the girl. What was frightening was the fact that no matter how it had happened, the girl had no platform from which to state her case. In fact, she had no case. If she had been raped, it was entirely her fault: ‘What were you doing alone with him? Why were you wearing that short short dress? Why do you invite men with those eyes of yours? You must have done something to cause it! Why did you not scream for help? Why didn’t you yank at his missile? (Why did you have to be born a female?)”
I remember watching a once vibrant, lively girl metamorphose into a downtrodden haggard old woman in one day. It seems the curses heaped on her head were not enough, the admonitions not harsh enough, the vocabulary used to describe her disgraced state not quite florid enough. The aunties and the male members of the family held hold court while she sat on the ground, head bent so far forward her chin sat on her chest. They pointed and gesticulated and spat on the ground in righteous disgust, from one side of the room, while she cowered under the vicious tongue lashing from the other side, all alone. It is these castigation forums, (and I witnessed many) which ignited in me, a visceral fear of the phallus. Then of course was there ever constant question, which knelled like a church bell incessantly in my head; what would my mother say??
Then there was the issue of addiction. Being a control freak, the idea that I would become enslaved to the missile was not one I was at all comfortable with. I had heard stories, mainly through our numerous maids who became more than just the house help. They invariably became the teachers on taboo subjects such as sex and I was a very eager student. This is where I learnt about the cloud numbered 9. I literally thought it was a cloud in the sky with the number 9 on it and I was told that reaching cloud 9 could only happen through a missile launch. It seems my Sisi Emmah had picked up on this metaphorical cloud from reading the sexy parts of Mills & Boon novels which her friend, a maid two houses from ours, stole from her boss madam! Alas trying to explain such a metaphor in Shonglish ( a mixture of Shona and English) to a fourteen year old was tricky business.
The problem I had with this aspect of missiles is the part where once you had been launched you needed to be launched regularly and voila: The birth of the wanton woman, whose unquenchable lust for launches had her hopping from man to man. Sisi Emmah had pointed out such a woman to me. She had a languid, long legged stride, hips swinging back and forth, buttocks aloft and swinging rhythmically, for -me for -you for- me for -you for- me for- you, bust thrust out, eyes with a permanent come hither look, bedroom eyes. Sisi Emmah spat on the ground in disgust, ‘Uyo! Anehosha yevarume!- look at her, with her insatiable lust for men!” I had heard this phrase uttered with the same disgust and disdain about other women in our neighborhood and even in the village when I visited my grandparents. Such women were called hure-whores, kikita, gumbo mutsvayiro-she with the legs that carry her everywhere. Fascinating as these names were to me, I had no desire to be called by one of them. These women were outcasts of sorts. They were always on the fringes of women gatherings. They were the subjects of moral teachings at women’s church meetings. They were the thorn in many a married woman’s flesh, and women had no problems meting out jambanja-style jungle justice to such women, if they as much as sniffed in the direction of someone’s husband. Home wreckers! Husband snatchers! Jezebels and delilahs! Harbingers of death and mkondombera (HIV).I did not want Sisi Emmah or anyone else for that matter, to ever spit on the ground and utter those words about me. What would my mother say??
I was also obsessed with my future. In fact I lived most of my young life in my future. When faced with a plate of sadza and beans for supper, I would catapult myself into my future and my plate would transform into a beautifully presented platter of filet mignon with béarnaise sauce, sautéed mushrooms and a generous helping of mashed potato. When faced with a boring homework assignment, I would travel into a tomorrow in which I was a famous historian, author, doctor, mathematician, depending on what the tedious subject matter at hand was. In my future I saw the makings of a life totally governed by my every whim and executed in grand style amid applause, pomp and pageantry and a whole lot of sumptuous food! Therefore the thought that a missile could scubber my future and all the goodies that awaited me was something my young mind could not entertain for a second. Besides, what on earth would my mother say??
I admit that I was a coward. Yes, beneath the bravado and the big girl exterior was a really whimpy, sniveling, and lily- livered coward. I was terrified of the fiery pits of hell. The thought of spending a second in skin sizzling heat petrified me, let alone a whole eternity? This fear drove me to my knees and away from the missile. This fear had me reciting my rosary while my buddies snuck out of their parents’ homes at night to go clubbing. This fear made me crop my hair into a short buzz where all my friends sported jerry curls and “Dark and Lovely” perms. I decided to concern myself with the things of heaven , which by the way was also in my future, while my mates delved into and experimented with earthly and carnal pleasures. I would hear about Talk of the town club on Saturdays, the Miss Teen Queen Pageant and which chick was smooching which dude, and who was trying to hide their love bites and who was caught in the bathroom pants down and I would begin my internal litany to the saints: ‘Saint Francis- pray for us, St. Bartholomew- pray for us, St. Theresa of Liseux- pray for us, the other St. Theresa- pray for us!’
Paradoxically I was vain and sometimes the things of the earth were so alluring that I would perm my hair and marvel at the prettiness of my features framed by hair…until those of the missile went by, threw me a glance that was a moment too long and a tad too intense and it was off to Budhi Thomas, our gardener, scissors in hand with the instruction-‘half centimeter bhudi wam’- half a centimeter long my brother.” You have to imagine that all this was very confusing to my peers, my aunts and my mother, who would get very upset that I would cut my hair after she had spent good money at Juliet’s hair salon!
Here is another funny factoid: I liked boys! I mean I was attracted to them and even had a boyfriend, though I wanted to become a nun. In my mind the two were not mutually exclusive. (After all Sr. Ludgera (RIP), had a male friend, Fr. Bernhard). However my boyfriends always knew where to draw the line. In fact the line was drawn very clearly for them and none had the nerve to traverse it. I was what you might call a boy beater. Yes, one false move and I would just send a tidy slap sailing across his face, leaving red welts in its wake. This is usually how the line was drawn. After that we were cool and we held hands and kept pesky missiles where they belonged. I had one boyfriend whom I shall call D, and no matter how many slaps I delivered, he did not get it. Heaven knows, I slapped that boy and yet it seemed that the more I slapped the more audacious he got. I finally had to send him packing because I feared I may have had to graduate from slaps to fisticuffs! (This was my intro into Sado-masochism, which is a story for another day!) I imagine Sr. Ludgera drew the line too, though probably in much holier fashion and not with her hands. I bet she controlled that relationship.
The sounds of music always got my heart fluttering and much to my horror, my body would start undulating, winding and meandering round the base drum , the guitar and before I knew what happening I would be up, losing control of my feet, my waist and my senses to the music. In those days the good jams were ‘Falling in love, Don’t make me over, Let yourself go’ by Sybil. Then there were all the Club Cameo hits and UB40 with Red- red wine. Gwen Guthrie’s with ‘no romance without finance’ sent me into frenzy, nunnery aside!
The only way out of this quandary was to become a nun. I would live by the rules of chastity poverty and obedience and that would be that. Simple. My constant and exhausting vigilance in case missiles were stealthily lurking round some corner ready to fire, would be a thing of the past. The temptations of worldly pleasures would be locked out of the convent gates and would be unable to scale the high concrete wall with its border of barbed wire and broken glass (of course I always kept the option of scaling the high walls and back into the world open for myself…).
The other attraction of the convent was the nuns themselves. At fifteen, I was in awe of the nuns and how they seemed so in control of their own lives. Here was a group of women, running what was the best school in Bulawayo. It was a big school and they managed it with an efficiency and expertise that was breath taking. I envied the power they had to hire and fire men and women alike, to create rules as they pleased and to admit or deny students a place at the Dominican Convent. In my own life the only people I saw wielding such power exclusively were men. In homes men gave commands, controlled the finances, beat their wives into submission, or just for the fun of it or if the mistresses wouldn’t give them any or just because.
I remember one aunt of mine, I was visiting for the weekend, who got a resounding slap that sent her flying across the room to land head first on the corner of a teak table for looking at her husband the wrong way. She ended up with stitches just above her right eye, all for looking at her lord the wrong way. She could have landed on her eye and been blinded, all for looking at the missile monarch the wrong way.
My images of womanhood were those of disempowered, repressed women, broken down women who seemed to be mere shadows of their former selves, struggling under the weight of some invisible burden, and the domesticity they represented repelled me. It was all so depressing. I did not want to become like them. Surely there was more to life than getting married to missile – led men, having children, getting fat and old and dying. I did not want to be a spinster either because I had seen how spinsters were ridiculed and treated as abnormal for never marrying and having children. Some, in our village, had even been labeled witches, who had sold their wombs to the spirits in exchange for magical powers. The only hope for emancipation from what I saw as a mundane, doomed, boring and stiflingly stale existence was to be a nun.
I recall one Friday after school, the nuns were loading up their white Volkswagen minibus with picnic baskets and grass mats and they were all wearing straw somberos atop their black veils. They were in sandals and chatting and laughing excitedly, eyes behind chic sunglasses. I was standing in the hot sun my school bag in hand just watching with curiosity. I asked Rosina, the lady who watched over us during break time and after school while we waited for our parents. “Aunt Rosina, where are they all going?”
“Ah Barbara! Uthandizintho- you like things too much! They are going to Matopos for the weekend!” I had actually never been to the Matopos but my white classmates (and geography lessons) had regaled us with enough stories that it was not difficult to imagine the weekend of rock climbing, fun and bliss the nuns were embarking on. As I trekked to the bus stop, hunger gnawing at my insides, my saliva thick with thirst, I decided the sweet life was in the nunnery. “See how they drive their own cars! See how happy they are, just going for some serious enjoymentation! If by taking the vow of poverty, I am forever bound to a life of Matopos visits, great food everyday including during Lent, then I must become a nun. That definition of poverty is definitely more palatable than the real grinding poverty I see in my world. I’ll take poverty of spirit any day as long as my belly is full! Oh to be free of bills and the stress of figuring out where my clothes and books will come from! If all I have to do is say yes Mother Superior, certainly Mother Superior, as you say Mother Superior (and just go ahead and do as I please), I will sing God’s praises morning, noon and night in exchange for this level of freedom and enjoymentation! Away and out of reach of the missile…”
With that decision made I visited the Convents in Bulawayo in search of my spiritual home. My mother drove me to the Franciscans at Mater Dei hospital, where I spent weekends doing my home work and sampling Irish dishes. I wined and dined with the Precious Blood and the AMR sisters (known to me privately as the MNR bandits-it takes one to know one, hint hint!!!!). I visited the American Notre Dame sisters in Phumula but I was put off by the lack of a uniform. I wanted austerity! This desire for asceticism led me on a long bus ride at age16, to the Poor Clare nuns in Waterfalls, Harare. They were of Spanish extraction and for one whole week, I slept on a homemade leaf stuffed mattress and pillow, on the narrowest bed I had ever seen. I gate chunks of homemade bread and pea soup. There was no meat, eggs or bacon. There was no dessert. No apfelstrudel smothered in fresh cream. We prayed communally, at 4am, 6am, 8am, 10am (you get the idea). The time in between communal prayers were spent in private prayer, or baking bread in silence. There was no music, no guitar masses. There was no televisison or VCR to watch holy films. I wore a dark brown baggy uniform of coarse fabric (sack cloth) and manyathela-like sandals. I washed every day in a cold bucket of water with a bar of life buoy soap. There was no juicy gossip. There were no rumors about which sister was in shenanigans with which brother or priest. There was silence and more silence as we worked in the garden. I remember hearing the sound of bicycle bells and gardeners singing little songs beyond the high concrete walls and suppressing the desire to yell “Somebody, anybody HELP MEEEEE!” As I read about the Life of St. Clare, who inspired by St. Francis, forsook all earthly treasures, of which they had plenty, to live a life of prayer, it dawned on me that if I really were to become a nun, then this is the kind of nun I would have to be in order not to see myself as a hypocrite, professing to live a life of poverty when actually my life was a life of luxury compared to the millions of Zimbabweans, who knew what poverty really was. These nuns were poor in every sense of the word, not just the spiritual. They were humble and lived to do nothing but pray. Any other activity was in support of prayer. I even snooped around for chastity belts because I figured these nuns were so holy that they would safeguard their chastity in case those of the missile broke in and tried to ravage them! If I had found any I would have taken one home… I looked for whips because St. Clare was into self flagellation, to punish the body and subdue all carnal desires. If I had found them I would have taken one home and I knew just who to use it on! This visit was the litmus test. Was I ready to enter the cloistered life? Was I able to live in this manner day after day for the rest of my life? Had my desire to jump over the wall and run as though a thousand hounds were nipping at my heels a sign that I was not cut out for this? Was my barely controlled impulse to break into song during morning mass a signal from on high that this was not my path? I had no answers then and as I rode the bus back to Bulawayo, three kilograms lighter, I realized the seriousness of the decision ahead of me…but until I had to make that decision, I would continue my rounds of the convents in Bulawayo (a little competition never hurt anybody), enjoy the food stuffs and have fun toying with those of the missile, dance myself senseless and see where it is I would end up. And this is where I have ended up!
I hope I have explained my nun phase and its role on my becoming Barbara!
By the way I read somewhere that first time writers are often self indulgent? Well, in the words of my man Steve Biko ‘I write what I like’ in the hopes that you will like it too!